Poiret, Paul

views updated May 21 2018


Before Paul Poiret (1879–1944), there was the couture: clothing whose raison d'être was beauty as well as the display of wealth and taste. Paul Poiret brought a new element of fashion to the couture; thanks to him fashion can be a mirror of the times, an art form, and a grand entertainment. Poiret, in the opinion of many, was fashion's first genius.

Born into a solidly bourgeois Parisian family (his father, Auguste Poiret, was a respectable cloth merchant), Poiret attended a Catholic lycée, finishing as was typical in his early teens. Following school came an apprenticeship to an umbrella maker, a mêtier that did not suit him. At the time, it was possible to begin a couture career by shopping around one's drawings of original fashion designs. Couture houses purchased these to use as inspiration. Poiret's first encouragement came when Mme. Chéruit, a good but minor couturière, bought a dozen of his designs. He was still a teenager when, in 1896, he began working for Jacques Doucet, one of Paris's most prominent couturiers.

Auspiciously, Doucet sold four hundred copies of one of Poiret's first designs, a simple red cape with gray lining and revers. And in four years there, the novice designer rose up in the ranks to become head of the tailoring department. His greatest coup was making an evening coat to be worn by the great actress Réjane in a play called Zaza. The biggest splash fashion could make in those days was on the stage, and Poiret made sure to design something attention-worthy: a mantle of black tulle over black taffeta painted with large-scale iris by a well-known fan painter. Next came the custom of more actresses, and then, while working on the play L'Aiglon starring Sarah Bernhardt, Poiret snuck into a dress rehearsal where his scathing critique of the sets and costumes were overheard by the playwright, costing him his job. (The remarks could not have alienated Madame Bernhardt, as he would dress her for several 1912 films.) He fulfilled his military service during the next year and then joined Worth, the top couture house as an assistant designer in 1901. There he was given a sous chef job of creating what Jean Worth (grandson of the founder) called the "fried potatoes," meaning the side dish to Worth's main course of lavish evening and reception gowns. Poiret was responsible for the kind of serviceable, simple clothes needed by women who took the bus as opposed to languishing in a carriage, and while he felt himself to be looked down on by his fellow workers, his designs were commercial successes.

In September 1903 he opened his own couture house on the avenue Auber (corner of the rue Scribe). There he quickly attracted the custom of such former clients as the actress Réjane. In 1905 he married Denise Boulet, the daughter of a textile manufacturer, whose waiflike figure and nonconventional looks would change the way he designed. In 1906 Poiret moved into 37, rue Pasquier, and by 1909 he was able to relocate to quite grand quarters: a large eighteenth-century hôtel particulier at 9 avenue d'Antin (perpendicular to the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and since World War II known as Avenue Franklin-Roosevelt). The architect Louis Suë oversaw the renovations; the spectacular open grounds included a parterre garden. Poiret also purchased two adjoining buildings on the Faubourg St. Honore, which he later established as Martine and Rosine.

Les Robes of Paul Poiret

Until the October 1908 publication of Les Robes de Paul Poiret, Poiret was merely an up-and-coming couturier, likely to assume a place in the hierarchy as secure as that of Doucet or Worth. However, the limited edition deluxe album of Poiret designs as envisioned and exquisitely rendered by new artist Paul Iribe would have far-reaching impact, placing Poiret in a new uncharted position, that of daringly inventive designer and arbiter of taste. Fashion presentation up to then had been quite straightforward: magazines showed clothes in a variety of media, based on what was possible technically: black-and-white sketches, hand-colored woodblock prints, or colored lithographs, and, in the case of the French magazine Les Modes, black- and-white photographs or pastel-tinted black-and-white photographs. The poses were typical photographer's studio ones, carefully posed models against a muted ground, vaguely landscape or interior in feeling.

Using the pochoir method of printing, resulting in brilliantly saturated areas of color, Paul Iribe juxtaposed Poiret's graphically striking clothes against stylishly arranged backgrounds including pieces of antique furniture, decorative works of art, and old master paintings. The dresses, depicted in color, popped out from the black-and-white backgrounds. This inventive approach was tremendously influential, not only affecting future fashion illustration and photography, but cementing the relationship between art and fashion and probably inspiring the launch of such exquisitely conceived publications as the Gazette du Bon Ton.

The dresses were no less newsworthy and influential. When Poiret introduced his lean, high-waisted silhouette of 1908, it was the first time (but hardly the last) that a radically new fashion would be based fairly literally on the past. The dresses, primarily for evening, feature narrow lines, high waists, covered arms, low décolletés. Their inspiration is both Directoire and medieval. In abandoning the bifurcated figure of the turn of the twentieth century, Poiret looked back to a time when revolutionary dress itself was referencing ancient times. Suddenly the hourglass silhouette was passé.

Poiret, Bakst, and Orientalism

Poiret had an affinity with all things Eastern, claiming to have been a Persian prince in a previous life. Significantly, the first Asian-inspired piece he ever designed, while still at Worth, was controversial. A simple Chinese-style cloak called Confucius, it offended the occidental sensibilities of an important client, a Russian princess. To her grand eyes it seemed shockingly simple, the kind of thing a peasant might wear; when Poiret opened his own establishment such mandarin-robe-style cloaks would be best-sellers.

The year 1910 was a watershed for orientalism in fashion and the arts. In June, the Ballet Russe performed Scheherazade at the Paris Opera, with sets and costumes by Leon Bakst. Its effect on the world of design was immediate. Those who saw the production or Bakst's watercolor sketches reproduced in such luxurious journals as Art et Decoration (in 1911) were dazzled by the daring color combinations and swirling profusion of patterns. Since the belle époque could be said to have been defined by the delicate, subtle tints of the impressionists, such a use of color would be seen as groundbreaking.

Although color and pattern were what people talked about, they serve to obscure the most daring aspect of the Ballet Russe costumes: the sheerness (not to mention scantiness) of the materials. Even in the drawings published in 1911, nipples can be seen through sheer silk bodices, and not just legs, but thighs in harem trousers. Midriffs, male and female, were bare altogether. Whether inspired or reinforced by Bakst, certain near-Eastern effects: the softly ballooning legs, turbans, and the surplice neckline and tunic effect became Poiret signatures.

The cover of Les Modes for April 1912 featured a Georges Barbier illustration of two Poiret enchantresses in a moonlit garden, one dressed in the sort of boldly patterned cocoon wraps for which Poiret would be known throughout his career, the other in a soft evening dress with high waist, below-the-knee-length overskirt, narrow trailing underskirt, the bodice sheer enough to reveal the nipples.

The Poiret Rose

While there are some designers associated with specific flowers (Chanel and the camellia, Dior and the lily-of-the-valley) no one can claim the achievement of having reinvented a flower in such a way as to have it always identified with them. The Poiret rose (reduced to its simplest elements of overlapping curving lines) may have appeared for the first time in the form of a three-dimensional silk chiffon flower sewn to the empire bodice of Josephine, one of the 1907 dresses featured in the 1908 album Les Robes de Paul Poiret.Flat versions of the Poiret rose, embroidered in beads, appeared on the minaret tunic of the well-known dress Sorbet, 1913. Poiret's characteristically large and showy label also featured a rose.

While Poiret's claim to have single-handedly banished the Edwardian palette of swooning mauves can be viewed as egotistical, given Bakst's tremendous influence, his assertions about doing away with the corset have more validity. In each of the numerous photographs of Denise Poiret she is dressed in a fluid slide of fabric; there is no evidence of the lumps ands bumps of corsets and other underpinnings. Corsetry and sheerness are hardly compatible and boning would interrupt Poiret's narrow lines.

The Jupe-Culotte

In the course of producing his (hugely successful) second album of designs Les Choses de Paul Poiret (1911), Poiret asked his latest discovery, the artist Georges Lepape, to come up with an idea for a new look. It was Mme. Lepape who sketched her idea of a modern costume and put it in her husband's pocket. When Poiret asked where the new idea was, Lepape had to be reminded to fish it out. The next time they met, Poiret surprised the couple with a mannequin wearing his version of their design: a long tunic with boat neck and high waist worn over dark pants gathered into cuffs at the ankle. And so, at the end of the album under the heading: Tomorrow's Fashions, there appeared several dress/trouser hybrids, which would become known as jupe-culottes.

The jupe-culotte caused an international sensation. The Victorian age had left the sexes cemented in rigid roles easily visible in their dress—men in the drab yet freeing uniform of business, and women in an almost literal gilded cage of whalebone and steel, brocade and lace. While Poiret's impulse seems to have been primarily aesthetic, the fact that it coincided with the crusade of suffragists taking up where Amelia Bloomer had left off, served to bring about a real change in how women dressed. For months anything relating to the jupe-culotte was major news. In its most common incarnation, a kind of high-waisted evening dress with tunic lines revealing soft chiffon harem pants, the jupe-culotte was wildly unmodern, requiring the help of a maid to get in and out of and utterly impractical for anything other than looking au courant. Poiret did design numerous more tailored versions, however, often featuring military details and his favorite checked or striped materials; these do look ahead (about fifty years) to the high-fashion trouser suit.


In the space of five years, Poiret had become a world-renown success. Now came another influential act. Martine, named after one of Poiret's daughters, opened 1 April 1911 as a school of decorative art. Poiret admitted to being inspired by his 1910 visit to the Wiener Werkstätte, but his idea for Martine entailed a place where imagination could flourish as opposed to being disciplined in a certain style. Young girls, who, in their early teens had finished their traditional schooling, became the pupils. Their assignment was to visit zoos, gardens, the aquarium, and markets and make rough sketches. Their sketches were then developed into decorative motifs. Once a wall full of studies had been completed, Poiret would invite artist colleagues and wallpaper, textile, or embroidery specialists for a kind of critique. The students were rewarded for selected designs, but also got to see their work turned into such Martine wares as rugs, china, pottery, wallpaper, textiles for interiors, and fashions. The Salon d'Automne of 1912 displayed many such items made after designs of the École Martine and Poiret opened a Martine store at 107, Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

Within a few years, a typical Martine style of interior had been developed, juxtaposing spare, simple shapes with large-scale native designs inspired in the main from nature. A 1914 bathroom featured micro-mosaic tiles turning the floor, sink case, and tub into a continuous smooth expanse punctuated by murals or tile panels patterned with stylized grapes on the vine. There were Martine departments in shops all over Europe; although more decorative than what would become known as art deco and art moderne, Martine deserves an early place in the chronology of modern furniture and interior design.

Also in 1911 Poiret inaugurated a perfume concern, naming it after another daughter, Rosine, and locating it at the same address as Martine. Poiret's visionary aesthetic was perfectly suited to the world of scents and he was involved in every aspect of the bottle design, packaging, and advertising, including the Rosine advertising fans. He was also interested in new developments of synthetic scents and in expanding the idea of what is a fragrance by adding lotions, cosmetics, and soaps. Fellow couturiers like Babani, the Callot Soeurs, Chanel, and Patou were among the first to follow suit; thanks to Poiret, perfumes continue to be an integral part of the image (and business) of a fashion house.

Poiret the Showman

At a time when the runway had yet to be invented and clothes were shown on models in intimate settings in couture houses, Poiret's 1911 and 1914 promotional tours of Europe with models wearing his latest designs made a tremendous splash.

On 24 June 1911 the renowned 1,002-night ball was held in the avenue d'Antin garden featuring Paul Poiret as sultan and Denise Poiret as the sultan's favorite in a combination of two of Poiret's greatest hits, a jupe-culotte with a minaret tunic. The invitations specified how the guests should dress: Dunoyer de Segonzac was told to come as Champagne, His Majesty's Valet and Raoul Dufy as The King's Fool. If one of the 300 guests showed up in Chinese (or, worse, conventional evening) dress, he or she was sent to a wardrobe room to be decked out in Persian taste. Although fancy dress balls had been all the rage for several decades, this one seems to have struck a chord; perhaps it was the first hugely luxurious (champagne, oysters, and other delicacies flowed freely) event staged by a creative person (in trade no less) rather than an aristocrat. Future fêtes, each with a carefully thought-out theme, failed to achieve the same level of excitement. After the war, Poiret's thoughts had turned toward increasingly zany moneymaking ventures. The nightclub was the latest diversion after World War I and Poiret turned his garden first into a nightspot, and then in 1921 it became an open-air theater, Oasis, with a retractable roof devised for him by the automobile manufacturer Voisin. This venture lasted six months.

His last truly notable bit of showmanship was his display at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels. Rather than set up a display in an approved location in an official building, Poiret installed three barges on the Seine. Decorated in patriotic French colors, Delices was a restaurant decorated with red anemones; Amours was decorated with blue Martine carnations; and Orgues was white featuring fourteen canvases by Dufy depicting regattas at Le Havre, Ile de France, Deauville; and races at Longchamps, showing some of Poiret's last dress designs under his own label. It was clear that his zest for ideas was being directed elsewhere other than fashion. Typically over the top, he also commissioned a merry-go-round on which one could ride figures of Parisian life, including him and his midinettes, or shop-girls.

The Poiret Milieu

Poiret's interest in the fine, contemporary arts of the day began while he was still quite young. His artist friends included Francis Picabia and André Derain, who painted his portrait when they were both serving in the French army in 1914. His sisters were Nicole Groult, married to Andre Groult, the modern furniture designer; and Mme. Boivin, the jeweler; another was a poet. Besides discovering Paul Iribe and Georges Barbier, he reinvigorated the career of Raoul Dufy by commissioning woodcut-based fabric designs from him and starting him off on a long career in textile design and giving new life to his paintings as well. Bernard Boutet de Monvel worked on numerous early projects for Poiret, including, curiously, writing catalog copy for his perfume brochures. While quite young, Erté saw (and sketched) Poiret's mannequins in Russia in 1911; after emigrating to Paris he worked as an assistant designer to Poiret from the beginning of 1913 to the outbreak of war in 1914. His illustrations accompanied articles about Poiret fashion in Harper's Bazaar and reveal a signature Erté style that might not have developed without the inspiration of Poiret. He also launched the careers of Madeleine Panizon, a Martine student who became a milliner, and discovered shoemaker Andre Perugia, whom he helped establish in business after World War I.

Poiret's Clientele

Not surprisingly, Poiret's clients were more than professional beauties, clotheshorses, or socialites. Besides the very top actresses of his time, Réjane and Sarah Bern-hardt, the entertainer Josephine Baker, and the celebrated Liane de Pougy, one of the last of the grandes horizontales, there were: the Countess Grefulhe, muse of Marcel Proust, and Margot Asquith, wife of the English prime minister, who invited him to show his styles in London, creating a political furor for her (and her husband's) disloyalty to British designers. Nancy Cunard, ivory bracelet–clad icon of early twentieth-century style, recalled that she had been wearing a gold-panniered Poiret dress in 1922 at a ball where she was bored dancing with the Prince of Wales but thrilled to meet and chat with T. S. Eliot.

The international cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein met Poiret while he was a young design assistant at Worth and followed him as he struck out on his own. She was photographed in one of his daring jupeculottes in 1913 and wore a Poiret Egyptian style dress in her advertisements in 1924. The quintessentially French author Colette was a client. Boldini painted the Marchesa Casati in a chic swirl of Poiret and greyhounds. The American art patrons Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Whitney dressed in high bohemian Poiret and Natasha Hudnut Rambova, herself a designer and the exotic wife of the matinee idol Rudolf Valentino, went to Poiret for her trousseau.

Postwar Poiret

Poiret was involved for the duration of the war as a military tailor, and although he occasionally made news with a design or article, when he was demobilized in 1919 he had to relaunch his fashion, decorating, and perfume businesses. His first collection after the war, shown in the summer of 1919, was enthusiastically received and fashion magazines like Harper's Bazaar continued to regularly feature his luxurious creations, typically made in vivid colors, lush-patterned fabrics, and trimmed lavishly with fur. Poiret's work perfectly suited the first part of the 1920s. The dominant silhouette was tubular, and fairly long, and most coats were cut on the full side with kimono or dolman sleeves. Such silhouettes were perfect for displaying the marvelous Poiret decorations, either Martine-inspired or borrowed from native clothing around the world. He continued to occasionally show such previous greatest hits as jupe-culottes and dresses with minaret tunics. In 1924 he left his grand quarters in the avenue d'Antin, moving to the Rond Point in 1925. He would leave that business in 1929.


By 1925 Poiret had begun to sound like a curmudgeon, holding forth against chemise dresses, short skirts, flesh-colored hose, and thick ankles with the same kind of ranting tone once used by M. Worth to criticize Poiret's trouser skirt. Financially, he did poorly too, and he sold his business in 1929.

In 1931, Women's Wear Daily announced that Paul Poiret was reentering the couture, using as a business name his telephone number "Passy Ten Seventeen." Prevented from using his own name by a legal arrangement, he told the paper that he planned to print his photograph on his stationery, since presumably he still owned the rights to his face. This venture closed in 1932. After designing some for department stores such as Liberty in London in 1933, he turned his attention to an assortment of endeavors including writing (an autobiography called King of Fashion) and painting. He succumbed to Parkinson's disease on 28 April 1944.

While Gabrielle Chanel is credited with being the first woman to live the modern life of the twentieth century (designing accordingly), it is Poiret who created the contemporary idea of a couturier as wide-reaching arbiter. His specific fashion contributions aside, Poiret was the first to make fashion front-page news; to collaborate with fine artists; develop lines of fragrances; expand into interior decoration; and to be known for his lavish lifestyle. Poignantly he was also the first to lose the rights to his own name.

Poiret's earliest styles were radically simple; these would give way to increasingly lavish "artistic" designs and showman-like behavior. By 1913 Harper's Bazaar was already looking back at his notable achievements: originating the narrow silhouette, starting the fashion for the uncorseted figure, doing away with the petticoat, being the first to show the jupe-culotte and the minaret tunic. That the fashion world was already nostalgic about his achievements proved oddly prescient: his ability to transform how women dressed would pass with World War I.

See alsoDoucet, Jacques; Fashion Designer; Orientalism; Paris Fashion; Worth, Charles Frederick .


Deslandres, Yvonne, with Dorothée Lalanne. Poiret Paul Poiret 1879–1944. New York: Rizzoli International, 1987.

Poiret, Paul. King of Fashion: The Autobiography of Paul Poiret. Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott, 1931.

Remaury, Bruno, ed. Dictionnaire de la Mode Au XXe Siecle. Paris: Editions du Regard, 1994.

Sweeney, James Johnson. "Poiret Inspiration for Artists, Designers, and Women." Vogue, 1 September 1971, 186–196.

White, Palmer. Poiret. New York: Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 1973.

Caroline Rennolds Milbank

Paul Poiret

views updated May 29 2018

Paul Poiret

Paul Poiret (1879-1944) was an influential French fashion designer during the early twentieth century. He led a fashion renaissance that introduced free-flowing dresses, replaced tight corsets with brassieres, and added a new standard of artistic value to his fashion plates.

Poiret was born on April 20, 1879 in Paris. His father was a cloth merchant, and Poiret lived with his parents and his three sisters in an apartment above the shop. Poiret's parents had an interest in the arts and embellished their home with whatever art works they could afford. The family also owned a country house outside of Paris, at Billancourt, where Poiret spent his spare time constructing fountains, pressing petals from the garden, and gathering odd bits of iron and junk into what he called his antique collection.

When Poiret was 12, he and his family moved to Rue des Halles in Paris, where Poiret attended Ecole Massillon. When his sisters contracted scarlet fever, he was sent away to boarding school in order to avoid the illness He was only an average student and was often homesick. Poiret was already interested in fashion and found pleasure in scanning magazines and catalogs; he also enjoyed going to the theater and art exhibits. After his graduation, at the age of 18, his father sent him to an umbrella maker to learn the trade. Poiret hated the business and continued to pursue his interest in fashion by drawing and sewing designs in his spare time, using a small wooden mannequin his sisters had given him.

The Maison Doucet

Poiret's big break came when a friend encouraged him to take some of his designs to a woman named Mademoiselle Choruit, at the Maison Raundnizt Soeurs. Mme. Choruit was impressed with Poiret's work and bought 12 designs from him, encouraging him to return with more. From there, Poiret started to gain other clients and to visit other dress houses. In 1896, a designer named Doucet offered Poiret a full time job. Poiret had to take his disbelieving father to Doucet's studio in order to convince him that the offer was real.

Poiret thrived at the Maison Doucet, which was at the height of its prosperity. His first design was a red cloak; 400 copies sold and customers demanded the design in other colors. Thus Poiret's position in the designing business was secured. At Doucet's, Poiret created new designs every week, which were then exhibited by ladies at the horse races on Sundays. Poiret also designed costumes for various theatrical productions, which he enjoyed greatly.

Encouraged by Doucet, who expressed appreciation and admiration for his employee's designs, Poiret threw himself into his work. People began to recognize his name and his designs. He was encouraged to venture out into Parisian society a little more. Upon doing so, Poiret met Madame Potiphar, with whom he began a love affair. Relations with his father became tense, as Poiret developed a taste for independence. His relationship with Doucet suffered a similar strain because of some professional indiscretions. As a result, Poiret left the Maison Doucet, but was relieved to learn that his mentor did not bear a grudge. Poiret always respected Doucet and considered him to be a friend.

Moved Up in the World of Design

Two months after leaving the Maison Doucet, Poiret was recruited into the army and spent the next year in military service. He did not enjoy this time, but did manage to gain a short leave of absence during which he returned to Paris and again engaged in, as Poiret explained in his autobiography, King of Fashion: The Autobiography of Paul Poiret, "the study of what pleased me: feminine elegance."

After fulfillment of his military obligations, Poiret returned to Paris and accepted a position at the dressmaking firm of Maison Worth, which was run by two brothers, Gaston and Jean Worth. Here, Poiret began to design dresses for the general public, rather than the high-society ladies of Paris. The result was a reformation in fashion that freed the body from constricting forms. Poiret's new dresses were simple in design, featuring a classical-style high waist-line, tubular shape, and long skirt. The colors were plain and bold, often with very small designs, which were popular at the time.

Gaston Worth appreciated the profit Poiret's designs brought. His brother Jean, on the other hand, hated the lowering of standards he perceived Poiret was bringing upon their business. At one point Poiret presented some designs to a Russian princess, who was appalled with them. Discouraged at his inability to please such an audience, and becoming more interested in designing for the general market, Poiret left the Maison Worth and set out on his own.

With some financial help from his mother (his father had passed away by this time), Poiret set up shop at No. 5, Rue Auber, in Paris. His shop was modest, but Poiret gained the attention of passers-by with elaborate and colorful window displays. Within a month, his dress shop became popular. Poiret perfected the cloak that the Russian princess had scorned and that eventually became so popular that, as he said in his autobiography, "Every woman bought at least one." He called it "Confucius," and credited it with the beginning of the Asian influence in fashion.

This was the age of the corset, and Poiret waged war upon it. He popularized the brassiere, which gave women much more freedom and comfort. At the same time, however, he also created the innovative and popular tight skirt. Neither of these inventions were initially profitable because of his dishonest bookkeeper. The bookkeeper's response to Poiret's accusations of theft was to suggest that they visit a psychic, who promptly identified him as the man who was stealing money from Poiret. Thus the bookkeeper was dismissed, and Poiret was able to move on with his business in a more successful way. Eventually the shop at Rue Auber became too small to contain Poiret's growing business, and he moved into a house on Rue Pasquier. A dressmaker operating out of his home was not a common occurrence at that time, and Poiret raised many eyebrows and endured many slanderous comments because of his unusual business practices. None of the criticism, however, affected his growing reputation.

Poiret was becoming increasingly popular with the public, but was somewhat dissatisfied with his personal life. He had drifted in and out of love affairs and now longed for something more stable. He decided to begin a family and married a simple country girl whom he had known as a child. Poiret and his new wife traveled throughout Europe, learning more about the arts.

A Strong Influence

In his autobiography, Poiret stated, "People have been good enough to say that I have exercised a powerful influence over my age, and that I have inspired the whole of my generation. I dare not make the pretension that this is true … "; however, he goes on to say that what influence he did have was not in the creation of new styles or restoring of color to a woman's wardrobe, both of which he did, but rather, he says, "It was in my inspiration of artists, in my dressing of theatrical pieces, in my assimilation of and response to new needs, that I served the public of my day." Fashion design had come under the influence of photography and the high standard of artistic influence, as revealed in the fashion plates of such publications as the Journal des Dames et des Modes, had disappeared. Poiret was refreshingly innovative in his approach to design, restoring the artist as an important and creative force in fashion.

An important example of Poiret's artistic influence was in his work with Paul Iribe. With Iribe creating the drawings that pictured Poiret's dresses, they produced a publication for the elite society titled Les Robes de Paul Poiret, racontees par Paul Iribe. Poiret produced a similar album with artist Georges Lepape two years later titled Les choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape. Both publications were tremendously successful. In these ways, Poiret helped artists gain exposure in the public eye and helped them develop their talents. Consequentially, fashion illustration and literature once again became very popular. New publications appeared, such as the monthly Gazette du Bon Ton, which featured many of Poiret's designs.

Poiret also promoted the careers of several actresses, who gained recognition partly because of the costumes he designed for them. Poiret was the first costume designer to consider the lighting and the background of each scene when creating dresses for a theatrical performance. For the first time, the costume creator and the scenic artists of the theater worked together to create a visual impression that was an experience in and of itself.

Expanding Interests

Poiret continued to promote his own career. He said in his autobiography, "I did not wait for my success to grow by itself. I worked like a demon to increase it, and everything that could stimulate it seemed good to me." One of the ways he did this was by organizing a tour of the main capitals of Europe with nine models, showing his designs. The tour, taken in two automobiles, took Poiret and the women to such cities as Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Bucharest.

Poiret's interests included painting, boating, and participating in the Mortigny Club, a group of artists and dignitaries. He also established a school of decorative art in 1912, which he named Martine and which later provided Poiret with the inspiration for his founding of the Maison Martine. His school provided young Parisian women the opportunity to learn about design. The curriculum was unstructured, and the women were allowed to create as they wished, without criticism. The school gained the attention of many artists, including Raoul Dufy. Dufy and Poiret struck up a friendship, and Poiret sponsored Dufy in his artistic endeavors. Poiret even ventured into the world of art exhibition in 1924, when he exhibited Dufy's work. The endeavor proved to be unsuccessful, and Poiret did not pursue it further.

Perfumery and Parties

Poiret's career was temporarily halted when he was called into the military at the outbreak of World War I. He was released from service in 1917, after which he spent several months in Morocco, trying to recuperate from the experience of war. He then resumed his dressmaking business in Paris. By now he had established himself in the businesses of perfumery and interior decoration. Poiret also began conducting business with firms in America.

One of Poiret's favorite pastimes was giving parties, something that he had developed a passion for as a child. These huge fetes were elaborate and well attended and covered every gamut of entertainment, from dancers and orchestras to immense buffets and hundreds of carafes filled with exotic drinks. One party even featured a python, a monkey merchant, and a garden of wild animals. Some were based on themes, and others revolved around a performance in the "Oasis," a theater Poiret had created in his garden. Poiret also planned parties and balls for other people, events that were long remembered and talked about by those who attended.

Poiret spent his latter years indulging in his love of painting. He died on April 30, 1944 in Paris.

Further Reading

Choice, February 1991.

Mackrell, Alice, Paul Poiret, Holmes and Meier, 1990.

Pile, John, Dictionary of 20th-Century Design, Roundtable Press, Inc., 1990.

Poiret, Paul, King of Fashion: The Autobiography of Paul Poiret, translated by Stephen Haden Guest, J. B. Lippincott, 1931. □

Poiret, Paul

views updated May 17 2018


During the years before World War I (191418), Paul Poiret (18791944) earned acclaim for designing flamboyant, brightly colored women's clothing. He was inspired by a range of preexisting styles, from Oriental and Greco-Roman designs to Russian peasant costumes, as well as by the fine and decorative arts.

Poiret was born in Paris, France, and his family operated a cloth business. As a child he was fascinated by the theater and the fine arts. In 1896 he was hired by fashion designer Jacques Doucet (18531929), proprietor of one of the era's top Paris fashion houses. While working for Doucet, he earned acclaim by designing stage costumes for some of the period's most illustrious French actresses, including Sarah Bernhardt (18441923) and Réjane (18571920). He also worked at Maison Worth, another celebrated Paris-based design house. In 1904 Poiret opened his own design firm, which he named La Maison Poiret, or the House of Poiret.

At the time women regularly wore corsets, stiff, tight-fitting undergarments. Poiret freed women from their corsets and dressed them in a variety of clothing: tubular, sheath-like dresses; elegant, highly ornamental kimonos, loose fitting, wide-sleeved robes; long tunic dresses; harem pants, women's pants featuring full legs that come together at the ankle; and hobble skirts, a long skirt that comes in tight at the ankles. In place of corsets Poiret endorsed the wearing of brassieres as women's underwear.

To Poiret color and ornament were just as important as the cut of a garment. He worked with various Paris-based painters and illustrators to create stylish, brightly colored fashion illustrations and textile print designs. Poiret befriended many artists, and preferred modern French painting at a time when it had not yet won acceptance. He collected the work of those who would become the era's leading artists, among them Pablo Picasso (18811973), Henri Matisse (18691954), and Francis Picabia (18791953).

In 1908 Poiret began printing the designs he commissioned in limited-edition catalogs, which he sent to his customers. The manner in which these catalogs were laid out influenced the evolution of the fashion magazine. In 1911 Poiret marketed the first designer perfume, which he named Rosine. Under the Rosine name he also sold lotions and other cosmetic products. Then in 1912 he opened Atelier Martine, where he sold the fabrics and wallpaper created by his students at Paris's École Martine, a school of decorative arts.

During the 1920s fashion styles became less ornate and a new generation of designers came into favor. Poiret did not adapt his work to the changing tastes, and his business no longer flourished. By the time he died in 1944 he had lost his money, had long been in ill health, and was practically forgotten.